Profound meaning in subtle depictions: the spirit of resistance
Whereas Guan Liang represented the poses and expressions of stage characters in a childlike but faithful manner, Lin Fengmian was touched by the resonances between operas and his own life. As a result, Lin’s works tended to focus more on the spiritual essence of Beijing operas than the effects of the actual performances themselves.
Beauty Defies Tyranny is a canonical Beijing opera. In this story, the evil Qin-dynasty minister Zhao Gao steals the eponymous sword from the family of Kuang Hong, one of the founding ministers of the Qin empire. With this sword, Zhao assassinates the second emperor of the Qin and shifts the blame to Kuang. Zhao’s daughter Yanrong, who is the wife of Kuang Hong’s son, feigns madness to win the sympathy and trust of the empress. Then she exposes her father’s plot to usurp the throne, proving Kuang Hong’s innocence and returning the sword to him. Lin Fengmian’s Beauty Defies Tyranny (Lot 1016) depicts the classic climactic moment in this opera: Zhao Yanrong’s feigning madness in the golden hall of the palace. In the painting, Zhao Yanrong, accompanied by an attendant, raises her arms in a dramatic pose and allows her robes to flutter. Her expression, however, is solemn and confident, radiating a moral charisma. By contrast, Zhao Gao is presented in geometric abstraction and wearing a formalised operatic mask, hinting at his evil intentions and the darkness of the times. This painting expresses a spirit of resistance towards adversity and authority, a core value of artistic modernism.
The fusion of east and west: a language of spatial-temporal juxtapositions
Throughout his life, Lin Fengmian tirelessly sought an artistic language that harmonised Eastern and Western aesthetics. But he felt that simply studying other artists’ works without being grounded in one’s own practical experience would result in superficial art. His discovery of Beijing opera as a subject resolved this problem. Beijing opera gave him a way to understand cubism and other international modernist currents, as well as a way to re-examine spatial and temporal relationships, from the firm standpoint of traditional Chinese culture.
Lin boldly departs from the demands of realist representation and incorporates the Chinese folk arts of paper-cutting and shadow theatre into a cubist composition. He flattens Zhao Yanrong and her attendant, and articulates Zhao Gao in the background in deforming, repeating, and layered abstract geometric forms. Incorporating figuration and abstraction in the same painting, he juxtaposes different spaces and times, and ingeniously captures the characters’ physical movements while maintaining a sense of temporal and narrative continuity. Lin’s use of colour is inspired by the bold and luxurious costumes and stage sets in Beijing opera. He applies black, red, and white in large and flat passages, and complements them with details in blue and yellow. The strong chromatic contrasts, bold lines, and interweaving of colour blocks recall the fauvism of Matisse. Furthermore, he creates chiaroscuro in Zhao Yanrong’s dress to suggest the translucency of shadow theatre, emphasising the rhythm of the character’s movement and dramatizing the spatial-temporal conflations in the scene.
In the nascent globalised art world, Lin Fengmian discovered brand-new artistic possibilities and broke open barriers between East and West. His art was passionate and dynamic even while preserving the introspectiveness and subtlety of eastern aesthetics. This painting was included in The Collected Works of Lin Feng Mian Vol I and The Complete Works of Lin Fengmian Vol II published by Tianjin People’s Fine Art Press and China Youth Press respectively. The books are testaments to this modernist master’s lofty achievements and to the surpassing significance of his artistic language and the spiritual content and philosophical worldview that it embodied.
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